The Early High Christology Club and Bart Ehrman — An Excerpt from “How God Became Jesus”

Jeremy Bouma on March 27th, 2014.

Jeremy Bouma

Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) has pastored on Capitol Hill and with the Evangelical Covenant Church in Michigan. He founded THEOKLESIA, which connects the 21st century Church to the vintage Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and makes the vintage faith relevant at jeremybouma.com.

9780310519591This week Bart Ehrman released his new book, How Jesus Became God, and we released the response book How God Became Jesus (HGBJ), by Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon J. Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, and Chris Tilling. Below we provide a helpful introduction to contemporary conversations about Christology that sit at the heart of HGBJ.

In Michael Bird's chapter on "The Story of Jesus as the Story of God," he outlines the so-called "Early High Christology Club" (or EHCC). It is a cast of scholars—including Hengel, Bauckham, and Hurtado—who agree "high Christology" emerged very early. This contrasts sharply with Ehrman's thesis, which is also provided in the text of HGBJ.

This excerpt provides a glimpse into the calibre of engaging, critical response our contributors have carefully given to Ehrman's latest work. We hope it helps you engage the crucial issues surrounding how God became Jesus.

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The Early High Christology Club

In contrast to the thesis of Ehrman and others that a “high Christology,” which identified Jesus as a fully divine figure, was an evolutionary development, a cohort of scholars has argued for something more akin to a “big bang” approach to the origins of a fully divine Christology. Several scholars have asserted that the first few decades of the church saw the rise of a form of devotion and types of christological confession that clearly placed Jesus within the orbit of the divine identity. The cast of scholars who have done the most to promote this paradigm of an early and relatively strong identification of Jesus with the God of Israel is known within scholarly circles as the EHCC, or, “Early High Christology Club.” …

The late Martin Hengel exposed many of the tenuous arguments put forward for an evolutionary process of christological development. He argued: “The time between the death of Jesus and the fully developed Christology which we find in the earliest Christian documents, the letters of Paul, is so short that the development which takes place within it can only be called amazing.” If that is the case, then “more happened in this period of less than two decades than in the whole next seven centuries, up to the time when the doctrine of the early church was completed.”

Hengel surgically dismantled the view held by the old “history of religions” school about how belief in Jesus as God emerged. On their account there were a number of separate and insulated Christian communities comprised of Jewish Christian, Hellenistic Jewish Christian, and Gentile Christian tiers, each of which represented a separate developmental phase in the formation of beliefs about Jesus. This development began with Jesus as the “Son of Man” in Palestinian communities to a fully divinized “Lord” influenced by mystery cults in Greek-speaking centers…

Hengel also contended that Paul’s letters, written mostly in the 50s, use traditional and stereotyped formulations for talking about Jesus’ identity and divine status (e.g., Rom 1:3–4; 1 Cor 8:6; Gal 4:4; Phil 2:5–11; etc.), and go back to his earliest missionary activities in the eastern Mediterranean in the 40s. These texts make outstandingly elevated claims about Jesus, including his preexistence, his divine nature, and his mediation of creation and salvation. Hengel does not deny that development did occur. The later Logos Christology of the John the Evangelist at the end of the first century and Justin Martyr in the mid-second century represent a genuine development that attempts to flesh out Jesus’ divine functions and to explain them in terms relatable to Greek metaphysics. Yet these developments are based on a logical fusion of Jesus’ preexistent sonship with Jewish wisdom traditions, and so they are not derived from an interface with pagan sources.

According to Hengel, the key influences for the church’s beliefs about Jesus were not Hellenistic mystery cults or a Gnostic redeemer myth, but a mixture of experience and scriptural exegesis. The sending of the Son had a close analogy with Jewish wisdom traditions about the descent and ascent of wisdom into the world as sent from God…

Larry Hurtado has argued that the devotional practices of the early Christians were foundational for their doctrinal developments. So rather than focus on a study of the major christological titles found in the New Testament, Hurtado addresses instead the worship patterns in the early church and what they tell us about the divine status of Jesus. His conclusion is that early Christian worship shows a clear veneration of Jesus as the God of Israel in human form. Jesus was treated as a recipient of devotion and was associated with God in often striking ways. Such devotion to Jesus as divine “erupted suddenly and quickly, not gradually and late, among first-century circles of followers” and exhibited “an unparalleled intensity and diversity of expression.”…

Richard Bauckham is a British scholar who has devoted much attention to Jewish monotheism as the context for early Christian claims about Jesus (and yet his work is entirely ignored by Ehrman!). According to Bauckham, Jewish authors focused on several salient elements to identify the uniqueness of God. God was known as the one and only God through his relationship to Israel as the one who reveals the divine name, YHWH, but also, and more importantly, through God’s relationship to all of reality as the sole Creator and highest sovereign over all things. In the New Testament, Bauckham argues, Jesus is also regarded as a divine figure since his relationship to Israel and to the whole of reality is configured in a similar way…

I do not mean to say that the EHCC (i.e., Hengel, Hurtado, and Bauckham) represents some kind of infallible triumvirate about the emergence of belief in Jesus. Each of the contributors to this volume will have his own assessment of their claims and arguments. However, it would be fair to say that our team is broadly supportive of the EHCC approach to mapping the emergence of a fully blown “christological monotheism,” where the one God is known as and identified with Jesus the Christ…

The Gospel According to Ehrman

The claims of the EHCC and our own cohort of contributors can be contrasted with the thesis that Ehrman sets forth in his book How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee.

For Ehrman, ancient monotheism was not particularly strict. In his reading of ancient texts, Ehrman posits a pyramid of power, grandeur, and deity that could be shared with creatures to some degree. There was no absolute divide between the divine and human realms; it was more like a continuum, where divine beings could become human, and humans could become divine…

In addition, according to Ehrman, Jesus was not regarded as God by anyone during his own lifetime. Jesus did not think of himself as God. Rather, Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who looked for God’s dramatic intervention in the world. Jesus had set his hopes on a mysterious and heavenly figure called the “Son of Man,” whom God would use to usher in his kingdom in the immediate future. Explicit claims to Jesus’ divinity in the gospel of John are secondary and inventive accretions to the tradition, which have been projected back into Jesus’ career.

What is more, the gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection are highly contradictory and are not historically accurate. Although Jesus was definitely crucified, he was not buried by Joseph of Arimathea, nor was his tomb found empty. Instead, reports of his resurrection emerged when his disciples had visionary experiences of him as still alive. These visionary experiences were transformative for his disciples, and they thereafter began to talk of Jesus in elevated categories, as a human exalted to heaven. Then later others began to think of Jesus as a preexistent being who became human.

As such, Ehrman identifies two primary ways in which Jesus was divinized by the early church. First, and the earliest version, was “exaltation Christology,” whereby Jesus was a man who was made divine at his resurrection or baptism. Second was “incarnation Christology,” whereby Jesus was a preexistent being who became human. Applying this paradigm to the New Testament, the gospel of Mark understands Jesus in terms of an exaltation Christology, while the gospel of John reflects an “incarnation Christology. In the case of Paul, Ehrman believes that Paul thought of Jesus as an angel who became human and was then exalted to a position beside God.

Finally, Ehrman describes the various controversies about the nature of Christ that were waged in the churches in the succeeding centuries, climaxing is the Nicene Creed in the fourth century. There he maintains that what was the earliest form of Christology, namely, exaltation Christology, was deemed heretical or unorthodox by the church in the second century. Among the many repercussions of the Nicene Christology was the increase in anti-Semitism. In the mind of Christians, if Jesus was God and if the Jews killed Jesus, then the Jews had killed their own God. According to Ehrman, the Christ of Nicea is a far cry from the historical Jesus of Nazareth… (pg. 13-18)

 

How God Became Jesus

By Michael F. Bird, Craig A. Evans, Simon Gathercole, Charles E. Hill, Chris Tilling

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